Will hydrogen hit a home run this time?

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Updated May 9, 2017
UPS will be deploying the nation’s first Class 6 hydrogen fuel cell delivery vehicle.UPS will be deploying the nation’s first Class 6 hydrogen fuel cell delivery vehicle.

It’s been said that if you want to know the next big trends, then follow the leaders.

Today, global shipping giant UPS announced that this fall it will be deploying the nation’s first Class 6 extended range fuel cell electric vehicle.

Seventeen zero-emissions prototypes will be put to work in California where public hydrogen fuel stations are expected to swell from 14 to 64 locations by the end of 2018, according to Mike Britt, UPS’ fleet and maintenance director. That’s an impressive uptick considering the U.S. DOE currently lists only 29 hydrogen stations nationwide.

“California gets it,” Britt told Hard Working Trucks. “And that’s being pushed by other entities as well. You’ve got Toyota, Honda, Nissan—they’re all trying to push that as well. So, it’s an interesting course that we’re on with them, because once that hydrogen is available, we’ll just use it at our stations.”

UPS plans on eventually having its own hydrogen dispensers.

Roughly two weeks ago, Toyota announced that it will be putting its fuel-cell Class 8 concept tractor-trailer to work at the Port of Los Angeles. The automaker and Shell are up for a $16.3 million state grant to partner up and open seven retail hydrogen fueling stations in the Golden State.

Perhaps this time California really will be getting more hydrogen stations fast. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2015 that private and public representatives made similar predictions in the past that never materialized.

“Linda Rapattoni, spokesperson for the California Energy Commission, said her agency is predicting 50 stations will be open by the end of 2016,” LA Times reporter Charles Reporter wrote in November 2015.

Nope, never happened. Still, big players in the industry, including OEMS, continue to plow ahead.

In January, GM announced a partnership with Honda to mass produce hydrogen fuel cell systems. Keep in mind that GM has been working with the U.S. Army to develop an ultra-quiet, militarized version of its popular Chevy Colorado dubbed the ZH2. Given the popularity of the pickup market, that might have been the best move yet by an OEM to build more intrigue and respect for the alt fuel. From bird watchers to hunters, most outdoors enthusiasts would embrace the opportunity to drive in near stealth mode in the woods.

So, hydrogen’s star continues to rise in the alt fuel industry. But as with most things, there’s plenty of variety in fuels, and UPS wants to make it clear that it has a long-term goal of using hydrogen from renewable natural gas (RNG).

“Our long term is to go with renewable hydrogen. We want to get renewable hydrogen built into the mix here because we get that double carbon credit before the tailpipe, before the tank and then the tank to tailpipe zero emissions—that’s our strategy, our long term goal,” Britt told Hard Working Trucks.

At Monday’s Game Changer Summit 2.0 at ACT Expo, fleet bosses told a standing-room only crowd how pleased they were using Cummins’ near-zero emissions natural gas engines in busses and Class 8 trucks.

For Philadelphia, switching its refuse and recycling trucks made sense. Summit speaker Christine Derenick-Lopez, the city’s chief administrative officer, explained from the panel that the city also runs the waste water treatment plant and gas utility. Naturally, transforming waste into renewable natural gas for its trucks proved attractive.

Britt explained that the trash to gas approach is not that complicated and has other benefits besides lowering emissions. There was no mistaking Britt’s enthusiasm on the subject of expanding hydrogen fuel stations, especially those supplied with renewable natural gas.

Technology has not only made hydrogen fuel cells smaller and thus more adoptable, it’s also shrunk the size of reformers which derive hydrogen from natural gas sources.

So, what are the biggest challenges when it comes to opening more hydrogen stations?

“You know, I don’t see many with hydrogen,” Britt said. “Reformers are small. All they need is natural gas. The biggest challenge I see is getting renewable natural gas to them. More digesters need to be built in the U.S. off of landfills, off of waste-water treatment plants. That’s a bigger challenge I see. From a technical standpoint, putting reformers up—and they’re small…those reformers are small. They use to be real big, now they’re pretty small.”

Besides lowering emissions, what are the other benefits in switching to RNG?

“It’s a carbon benefit. Right now, there’s not a fiscal benefit in going with RNG. The more that’s produced, the more prevalent it will become. Once they start getting into that economy of scale, we think it should be cheaper than CNG. That’s what we think.

“Once digesters are running at full bore, because digesters are not really high maintenance items. Once they’re going, they’re going. And plus there’s other benefits. If you’re making landfills go away, now you can start doing other things with that real estate. Other developers will have opportunities to make it profitable to taking that trash to gas.

“Waste water will always need the same footprint, but as digesters get more aggressive, and that’s what they’re doing in south Georgia. South Georgia built digesters because they were running out of room for their landfills, so they just needed a way to make more room for trash and they started building digesters and realized that they don’t need any room.

“They’re just going to go digest everything. They’re digesting it into renewable propane, renewable hydrogen, renewable natural gas, renewable liquid natural gas because once it goes through there—it’s a lab really—and you can decide what you want. South Georgia happens to have a lot of propylene in their trash—plastic bottles—stuff like that which you can make renewable propane from very easily. So that’s one of their big products, renewable propane.”

While Class 8 all-electric options are intriguing, they’re just not practical, according to Marty Mitchell, fleet director with Athens Services who also spoke at the Game Changer Summit. Athens is a refuse and recycling company that’s been based in Southern California for the past 50 years.

“Every one of our trucks, except for roll-off, has a fairly large hydraulic horsepower demand. And you couple that with the weight that it has to carry and the operating hours that it needs to function, it can be really problematic.

“We might run 240, 250 miles (a day) in 12 hours. So an electric vehicle, if it can’t get there, it’s just not viable.”

While Mitchell said that the company has smaller operations that may prove more compatible with all-electric vehicles, the bulk of its business cannot depend on the technology.

“It just doesn’t pencil out. The transit guys…if they could do it, we can do it. If they adopt it and that technology is there and they can run the hours and miles that they’re running and they can do it with a 100-bus fleet, I don’t see anything that could keep us from looking that way. But they’re not doing that yet. They’re sort of the first, then the refuse guys come along later, then trucking comes well along after that.”

One of the last questions posed at the summit raised an interesting and controversial point that left panel members somewhat subdued for a moment or two.

“I hate to ask this question, but…” and then what followed from the attendant in the back of the packed room was reference to the subsidy factor. Did natural gas need to keep leaning on Uncle Sam?

Vic LaRosa, CEO, president and founder of TTSI, leaned forward in his chair and grabbed the mic. Increased regulations are key, he said, in driving the industry forward.

Britt, too, said that it’s critical that government play a big role in advancing hydrogen.

It wasn’t too long ago that former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, one of the major players behind the Chevy Volt, said in an interview with The Seattle Times that OEM vehicle electrification efforts should have begun with trucks, not small sedans. In other words, OEMs should have been rescuing serious gas guzzlers, not little autos that didn’t have that much of a fuel consumption problem to begin with.

Had the nation’s auto manufacturers acted earlier in going after the thirsty truck segment with alt fuel options and doubled down on advertising and consumer education, perhaps regulations and subsidies wouldn’t be playing such a prominent role in the alt fuel market.

But really…who can say? It’s a tough topic made all the more complicated by environmental implications and the ceaseless tug of war between entrenched and emerging auto technologies.

Perception definitely plays a huge role. No one in their right mind wants a smoggy Beijing skyline, but conversely no one’s checking to see what kind of truck delivered their new TV to the store or their front door.

And as Mitchell pointed out, a Southern California native like me, you’ve got a much clearer view of the mountains today than in years past. He’s right. The view’s not all that bad.